It all comes back to Faye Dunaway’s envelope. That moment when the surest best picture winner since Schindler’s List was announced, Hollywood reacted with one final weary round of applause, and Oscar-party attendees everywhere started collecting their coats. And then came the shock to end all shocks, what Mike D’Angelo correctly identified as “the greatest moment in Film Twitter history.” What’s more, PwC’s mistake has now blossomed into the gift that keeps on giving. Because absolutely no one—not even Sasha Stone, who’s been executing an exhaustive control-group ballot experiment the likes of which would make Nate Silver suggest dialing it down—is even remotely confident about what they should predict will win the top prize this year.
It’s not just last year’s snafu that’s knee-checked Oscar prognosticators in every corner, though that does sweeten the spectacle. Fans of Vanity Fair’s Oscar podcast Little Gold Men are, by now, all too familiar with the almost existential crisis that those tasked with this most reactionary of pastimes have been suffering in the wake of Moonlight toppling La La Land. Every week, the hosts have been talking themselves out of declaring last week’s favorite this week’s confirmed frontrunner, walking back on this film and then dipping their toes into that one. Add to that the much-publicized influx of new blood among the AMPAS’s voters, and the still-fresh deployment of a ranked-choice balloting protocol for the top award. Normally, this hand wringing would all feel like Oscar bloggers justifying their own vocation by drumming up artificial suspense, but the fact is that more films out of this year’s nominees are still thought of as being in the mix than have been ruled out.
It would have been easy, in fact, to predict which five films would’ve been nominated if Oscar had never expanded their slate: Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (with Phantom Thread this year’s recipient of the “orphan best director nod for a movie that’s frankly too good for the whole room” prize). Traditional Oscar rules from, say, a decade ago would’ve favored Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which has the requisite spread of guild prizes and the year’s biggest nomination count across a broad selection of categories, including the all-important bellwethers that weren’t necessarily sure shots given the field: original screenplay and editing. And its only distant competition would have been the Golden Globe and SAG ensemble-winning Three Billboards.
But, much as some continue to resist it, the numbers game has changed, and adjustments must be made. On a recent episode of Little Gold Men, guest Daniel Joyaux argued that the key to figuring out what will actually win best picture, especially in a competitive year, is to take into account which films are most likely to be eliminated in the first few rounds of tallying. If the film likely to have the least first-choice votes is The Post or Darkest Hour, you should consider then what those voters are most likely to have as their second- and third-choice picks. For Joyaux, that favors the traditional albeit fanboy-friendly Dunkirk, which is a plausible scenario.
However, what the contents of Faye Dunaway’s envelope taught us is that best picture can’t just be the most safely, inoffensively well-liked film. It also has to be a film that’s in the conversation, a film that can’t be denied second- and third-place votes, even if they’re somewhat begrudging. That’s why we not only see the incendiary flashpoint Three Billboards outpacing the nostalgic The Shape of Water, we envisage the Academy doubling down on waking up the room with wokeness and rewarding the politically acute genre miscegenation of Get Out. And we’re not the only ones.
Will Win: Get Out
Could Win: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Should Win: Phantom Thread